As senior quarterback Carter Hill exited the field in the fourth quarter, the final horn blew on the scoreboard signaling a 59-36 win for Buffalo State in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Southwest Bowl Game Nov. 22. As head coach Rick Shepas gathered his players for one last postgame message on the turf at John F. Wiley Stadium, the offseason officially began for Waynesburg football.
This is always a hot time for the media, as we calculate the graduation turnover and begin to project everything from next year’s starters to wins and losses. Before the ball is kicked off to open the 2015 season for Waynesburg football, it faces an offseason that is at a crossroads. The path the Jackets choose could either result in a 2015 fall from grace or the program will continue to stay amongst the upper echelon in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Obviously, the biggest determinant to a successful 2015 season is if Shepas elects to stay for his 11th season at the helm of the program. Over Thanksgiving break, Division I-AA Youngstown State fired its head coach, Eric Wolford, after five seasons. If the Penguins call, as he has been linked to the short list of coaching candidates, it would be an attractive offer to Shepas, considering he is a YSU alum, hall of fame wide receiver at the school, has the familiarity of recruiting the state of Ohio and where his former college coach is now the university’s President - Jim Tressel.
But on the flip side, Shepas currently stands one win away from becoming Waynesburg’s winningest head coach of all-time. Though he was humbled to acknowledge his 50th win, becoming the program’s winningest head coach is the accolade any competitive coach that stays at a school for a significant period strives to accomplish. Also, he said that it is a reflection of the players that have come through the program that he has built as to why he has been linked to the job. He said because of the relationships he has built over the past 10 years, the interest in the job may not be as mutual.
Though, this could be a perfect time for Shepas to trade homes from a hive to an igloo, since the argument can be made that the cupboard is bare.
In 2010, at my high school Canon-McMillan, Guy Montecalvo retired as head football coach, after nearly a decade at the school, to focus his efforts on being the school’s athletic director. Deep down knowing that Mike Hull and Chad Hagan, who were both Division I athletes at Penn State and Ohio State, were graduating, Montecalvo was making the move because he knew the following season, he just didn’t have the talent to compete at the level he had become accustomed to, at least in the eyes of those outside of the program.
Similar situations have happened in higher levels of college football – most notably Urban Meyer – after the graduation of Tim Tebow. On one hand, I can see this being the case as for why Shepas would decide to move on to the greener pastures of the FCS, without mentioning the upgrade in facilities, pay in most cases, athletic scholarships and the escape from strict institutional rules that come with coaching at a private school.
With the winningest class of Waynesburg football history since the team joined the NCAA graduating, big shoes will need to be filled at 14 different starting positions and a host of rotational spots. Again, this is the case for most schools nation-wide, but why Waynesburg is a different case is because the turnover wasn’t as noticeable from 2012-13 and from 2013-14.
This graduating senior class and the two classes before it established a bar that getting to records worthy of ECAC Bowl Games is not enough anymore. Now, it is competing with Washington & Jefferson and Thomas More, and going shorter than decades between PAC titles. The new standard is the standard, as Mike Tomlin would say.
With Hill under center and many underclassmen seeing time as starters during those years, one couldn’t project much of a drop off last season or this season. However, that cannot be said for next year’s junior and sophomore class.
Maybe the two classes’ lack of playing time was due to the senior class having established roles, and without injuries, couldn’t be passed on the depth chart. But for those who did have the chance at playing time, it wasn’t always pretty.
Despite a breakout two-interception performance in Waynesburg’s shutout of Muskingum in the first game of the season, Josh Mundell, who started as a sophomore this year, was part of a Waynesburg pass defense that finished last in the PAC. Imagine how much worse those numbers could’ve been without Mike Lopuchovsky, who was tied for third in the PAC in interceptions with five and tied for the team lead in tackles.
When sophomore JT Colosimo was put in to replace an injured David Bobby on the offensive line, he was immediately yanked as soon as Bobby was able to muster the energy to play at least half strength.
After what was a promising end to the 2013 season, filling in for Jake Danks at number-three receiver, sophomore Tim Cooper only managed to catch 21 balls for 275 yards and a touchdown on the season. Coming into the season, many expected him to become the fourth option to a stellar Waynesburg passing attack, but injuries, drops and inconsistent passing by Hill in the first part of the season plagued Cooper’s sophomore season.
But, there were also a few sophomores who stood out in their first years of significant playing time: Tyler Givens and Zach Sniadach most notably. Both should be strongly considered for starting roles in 2015. It was also a shock that junior Aaron Palmer was not a part of the All-PAC team, as he was tied for the team lead in tackles, and will certainly be a rock in 2015. But fellow juniors Jordan Voitus and Jerry Lawman will have to have the type of emergence that Palmer had this season, as both will be counted on as senior leaders.
Though, the biggest question facing next year’s team is who will be the quarterback. Will Kevin Barnes Jr. transition back to the position, after spending this season as a tight end? Will one of the other three quarterbacks on the roster excel with no varsity experience? Will a freshman come in and take the reigns of the position fresh out of high school? Or, if Shepas stays, does he pull off another great transfer, and we see a second era of a D-II Ohioan under center.
When taking a look at quarterbacks around the PAC, all of Waynesburg’s toughest competition next year returns their starters. With road games expected against Thomas More and W&J next season, as well as the emergence of Westminster and Saint Vincent becoming two teams Waynesburg can’t already chalk up two wins against; and that’s also not even taking into account the rivalry with Bethany, Waynesburg faces a much tougher schedule next year than it did this year.
The entire complexion of next season will be up in the air if Shepas accepts a possible offered position from Youngstown State; thus, muddling the recruiting class and changing the offensive and defensive playbooks.
But if Shepas does decide to stay for an 11th year, he will have an upward hill to climb headed into the offseason with the graduation of this great senior class that has raised the bar to a new expectation.